Jimmie Johnson was 16 when he arrived at Summit Point MotorsportsPark in West Virginia for his first road course experience. He didn’t know what to expect and was less than optimistic about getting licensed to compete in the Sports Car Club of America.
“There was only one other driver that had passed on the first time through the school,’’ Johnson recalled. “I just thought it would be cool to drive on a road course.’’
Johnson struggled on the written test that was all about rules and regulations. He did well on the driving portion, and excelled in a race that pitted him against other cars that should have been faster.
“I passed every one of them and went on and won the race,’’ Johnson said. “When I won they gave me my license, but it took a little bit of persuading because I did so poorly on the written test.
“But the only other driver at that time to have passed in his first time through was Boris Said, so I was stoked.’’
A few months later, Johnson returned and won a national qualifier.
Fast forward to 2009. Seven-plus seasons into his Sprint Cup career and the three-time defending champion still has his eye on his first road course win. In seven trips to Infineon Raceway, where NASCAR’s top series returns on June 21, Johnson has one top five and only two top 10s. His best finish was fifth in 2004. At NASCAR’s other road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y., he has three top fives and four top 10s in seven starts. Yet that victory has been elusive.
But it’s not for a lack of effort. Johnson and the No. 48 team spend countless hours preparing for the road courses. They tested at Virginia International Raceway in May and at CarolinaMotorsportsPark in Kershaw, S.C., earlier this month.
Crew chief Chad Knaus has thrown everything he can into the setup to give Johnson the best car possible, and is looking to check off Infineon Raceway on the team’s list of wins soon.
“I would be disappointed if I didn’t get a win on a road course at some point,’’ Johnson said when asked if he needs a road course win to make him a complete driver. “We’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years to get me more seat time on those tracks, and I’m confident it will come.
“I really like racing on road course and feel like it should be an area of strength for this team.’’
Preparing for a road course brings challenges not found on ovals. Because the cars turn left and right instead of all left balance becomes more of a factor. More weight is added to the right side to counter the weight of the driver. Brake efficiency also is key, maybe more than at Martinsville Speedway where brakes are used more than any other oval.
Teams also bring more transmissions because you can change gear ratios more at road courses, and there typically are two additional sets of eyes other than the spotter to give Johnson guidance.
“Besides that you pretty much have what you have,’’ car chief Ron Malec said. “It’s hard to make the car happy going both directions. You find a compromise there and you run it.’’
Much of the preparation comes in strategy. Teams mentally run the race backwards when figuring pit stops, understanding if you make more than two you likely won’t be a contender.
Fuel mileage and fuel pickup also figure into that.
“Some teams do things a little differently than others,’’ Knaus said. “You can run a center pickup which is opposite than what we typically run on an oval. At an oval we typically will run a pickup in the right rear corner of the fuel cell.
"At a road course you can run it on the left side. You’re constantly turning right so the lateral Gs will pull the fuel to the left side of the car.’’
Even though the new car was designed for teams to run the same car at a road course that they do any other track, most teams prepare specially made machines. That doesn’t always spell success.
“I’ll be honest, we haven’t done too well at road courses with our road course cars,’’ Knaus said. “But we’re doing everything we can to change that.”
Knaus doesn’t know exactly why the No. 48 team hasn’t won on a road course. Luck plays a role. Johnson had a strong car last year at Sonoma, leading 27 laps after leading only three in his six previous trips there.
He finished 15th, losing track position because he was caught on pit road at the wrong time.
“Jimmie has done a good job of improving his road course mentality and as a team we have done a good job,’’ Knaus said. “We just haven’t had the opportunity to show it yet.’’
Johnson doesn’t hesitate to call on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, one of the top road course drivers in the garage, for advice. He also has worked with road course specialist Max Papis. Competing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona also has helped.
But so far his most memorable road course moment may have come in the Nationwide Series at Watkins Glen when the brakes failed and he flew over a sand trap into a foam barrier.
“Everyone asks me why I got out and climbed on top of the car after I crashed,’’ Johnson said. “I just remember being happy that I was fine.’’
The next time he climbs on top of a car at a road course Johnson hopes is after a win.
“One of our goals is to win a road course race this year,’’ Knaus said. “A lot of our stuff comes from preparation leading up to the race as far as from the team’s aspect with trying to figure out pit strategies and looking forward to seeing what is going to happen there.
“I’m looking at past history and what not,” Knaus added. “As far as Jimmie’s side of things, he’s pretty solid.’’ He has been since his first road course experience 17 years ago.